As an alternative to Denise's journal of this balloon trip, we are presenting our own journal. Different, but not necessarily, better, this journal has our perspective. If you don't like it, blame our education and upbringing.
Packing is an artform. I haven't quite got it yet. At least I've stopped bringing enormously heavy textbooks with the mistaken intention of having an ounce of motivation to study after an afternoon drinking wine. I do pretty well with clothes, but my latest luggables include my laptop computer, two video cameras, a portable printer, a portable scanner. Adriana has packed 7 pairs of shoes for 13 days. We each bear our own burdens.
We're both anxious to go, but we're going to miss Woody. We've arranged to board him at "Posh Pets", where he gets his hair cut, and the staff is delightfully light of foot. Their references checked out very well, and we're feeling pretty comfortable leaving him there.
We got off about an hour late, but the flight was relatively quick and painless; about seven and a half hours, with a change in Gatwick. Adriana fell asleep right after dinner. She looks so peaceful curled up in her blanket. Not me. It took three gin and tonics put me to sleep and I woke up with saliva dripping down my chin. But, we are on our way and excited to see what's ahead.
Things, took a turn for the worse in Paris. Cindy told us to meet them Park Hotel, which is quite well known. After about an hour dealing with surly Parisian information clerks we narrowed down the long list of "Park" Hotels to the Westin Le Park Hotel which turned out to be absolutely beautiful. Just as the stress wound down, it ratcheted up again when we realized we'd left Adriana's bag on the luggage belt back at Charles de Gaul airport. It took a long nap and an very competent concierge, who located our bag, to rescue Adriana from deep dispair.
PARIS, SATERDAY AFTERNOON, EVENING, NIGHT - Dad gave us a wakeup call and we met him, Cindy and Denise to take our first look at Paris. The weather was gorgeous, sunny with a little autumn bite. The leaves were turning and we walked five blocks from our hotel to the Arche de Triumphe and then along the Champs Elysee. The locals were all out schmoozing in the sidewalk cafes and taking in the day. It wasn't long before we succumbed and parked ourselves in a café with a carafe of wine. It was a dark, wood and red leather kind of bar, and feeling in the spirit, I tried a glass of Calvados, a wicked brandy distilled from apples. I've heard of French Resistance widows getting Nazi's drunk on this stuff and then doing them in, in their stupor. It definitely got me kick started. We finished a couple of bottles of a really nice Sancerre and Adriana sipped her Orangina and happily drooled over the desserts that they had under glass.
Dad tottered back to the hotel and we continued on, taking the Metro to Montmartre, intent on soaking up Paris in 24 hours. We were soaking up a great deal of wine anyway. The artists on Montmarte are a bit pushy but the atmosphere is still a lot of fun. We ate on the sidewalk of L'Auberge de Paris, with a view of the artists' park and a charming flirty waiter who loved Cindy. He passed her his address and phone number before our meal was half finished. And what a first French meal we had! Mussels and Pommes Frites. Cindy had a great French onion soup too. We ended the night walking around Montmarte postcard shopping. On the Metro ride back, a young man passed out on the floor, having had one or three too many. Since he wasn't actively vomiting I did my good Samaritan deed and, along with a French woman, helped him back to his seat. After that, he was our friend, slurring away in French, oblivious that we didn't understand a word he was saying. I was a bit worried that he'd be following us home, but he got off at the stop before ours and we wished him a fond adieu.
Continuing our quest to soak up the sites of Paris, we bounced out of bed at 7:00 AM to see the Eifel Tower. My appreciation of our hotel grew as Cindy located it on our tourist map, only five minutes walk away. We approached it from behind and the sun was rising through the base and then the girders of the Tower. When it was built, it was regarded as an engineering feat. Now, in comparison with behemoths like the World Trade Center, it is merely beautiful. The view was breathtaking and we paused at the top of the stairs and drank cappuccinos to linger on the moment. We spent about an hour walking around the park which surrounds the Tour Eifel. A roller skating competition, was setting up in it's shadow, adding some hip tunes to the morning. We watched the competitors practice for a bit but the highlight was a very dirty, bearded, indigent who shocked the hell out of us by breaking into a very respectable break dance.
At 10:00 AM our time in Paris came to an end and we met Michael and Euan, our pilot and crew member, in the hotel lobby, to take the TGV high speed train to Beaune. The TGV speeds along at an incredibly smooth 136 MPH, turning a five hour trip into two hours. We actually arrived not in Beaune, but Dijon, where the rest of the crew met us to drive us the remaining distance. The ride into Beaune was a prelude to the unexpected beauty of Burgundy in Autumn. Wine producing vines change color and lose their leaves just as deciduous trees do. So, the hilly vineyards we wound through, on our first drive in Burgundy, were ablaze with a patchwork of golds, yellows, oranges, reds and browns. Michael also told us that harvest had just occurred and it had been a very good year. Whenever I drink a 1996 vintage, it will be this first glimpse of Burgundy that I will remember.
Our hotel in Beaune was the "Hotel de la Poste." The name of this hotel harkens back to a day when passengers of the stage coaches, which carried the mail, would stay overnight in small hotels along the route. However, our hotel did not reflect the spartan picture conjured up by this name at all, but was luxuriously appointed, with huge suites. It is located along the perimeter, or the old city wall of Beaune, which dates back to 11th century.
We rested for an hour of so, and then went out for our first balloon flight. We drove a little outside Beaune into a cleared vineyard, where the proprietor warmly met us, and we unfurled Dad's new balloon for the first time. By then, the wind was kicking up a bit, so we had to delay our first flight, but we inflated the balloon to get a good look at it. This balloon, as its predecessor, was designed with the corkscrew as its motif. As it grew in size and billowed in the breeze, the corkscrews on the balloon came to life. A French Dancing Girl corkscrew kicked its legs in the wind and a Mermaid corkscrew undulated in waves of silk. It truly was a beautiful sight. The new balloon is silver and gold, with airbrushed corkscrews spiraling down the balloon through the silver section. Green and burgundy patches spiral along the edges of the silver and represent the colors of the wine producing vines as well as the helix of a corkscrew. We can't wait to fly in it tomorrow.
One recurring problem is that we cannot connect online. Dad is having AOL detox. The hotels both in Paris and Beaune have some strange phone wiring scheme. Michael, our versatile balloon pilot, will bring his laptop over later to see if he can help us.
Dinner was at the chateau of owned by and ex-race car driver. The chateau entrance was beautifully lit by spotlights as we drive up, but Michael insisted on driving us around the back to see one of the unusual hobbies of the owner. Our headlights pierced the darkness of a small drive to reveal the pointed noses of jet fighter planes parked one after the other, MIG in incongruous proximity to Mirage. There were maybe forty of fifty of these planes lined up and well labeled, like a proud boy's stamp collection. Dinner was wonderfully presented and delicious. Candles lined the entranceway to a room containing a buffet of delicacies and a collection of wines which waited for us. We ate in front of the fire of an eight hundred year old hearth. Adriana and I were suitably impressed.
What could make the night complete? A stop at an English pub in Burgundy? That's what we did, drinking pints (or were they half liters?), and playing darts at "Pickwicks". The crew met us there and we also bumped into Catherine, Dad's good friend and B&R guide-Now B&R Trip Planner. Adriana and I really liked her too. She's warm and funny and we had a good chat. We got out of there about 1:00 AM and noticed we were missing Cindy, who was assisted home walking with a couple of the crew.
I woke up to a nice headache, but ... no pain, no gain. Cindy was really feeling rough today, much drink, little sleep. We're up before Buddy's call to fly. That won't last, but we're excited about our first flight. We dressed and went down, taking the elevator because we loved the accordion door of the old lift in this charming hotel. Breakfast was a couple of croissants and delicious cups of coffee. The sky was clear and just a little hazy, and we inflated and took off. The vineyards displayed every shade of Autumn finery as we floated silently through the valleys. Everything in Burgundy is related to wine. We passed over valleys of recently harvested grapes, to nearby a barrel making factory, and into the town of Mersault. Mersault looks small and unpretentious, but as we approached, the history and tradition of this town revealed themselves from above as we looked into flowered courtyards and the ancient walled compounds of the towns houses. A half ruined roman arch graced the garden of one modest home.
The roof and spires of the city hall were a patchwork of blue and yellow painted tiles, a Flemish design we were later told and a hallmark of Burgundian architecture from the time when the Dukes of Burgundy held hegemony over the Lowlands. In the streets, a master vintner was making his rounds and in a courtyard a truck was being filled with grape mash, all evidence of the end of harvest, and the beginning of the wine making.
We flew on through the vineyards of Montrachet, the home of the best white wines in the world. It felt incredible to be are flying over vineyards that look so ordinary, yet whose names are world renowned. At the end of our flight we passed right over the Chateau de la Rochepot, an incredibly fairy tail looking 14th century fortress. Lunch was at Le Montrachet, where we drank, what else, Puligny-Montrachet. Our repast lasted a a leisurely two hours and was delicious. Adriana tried escargot for her first time and was hooked on it for the rest of the trip.
After lunch jet lag, wine and full tummies caught up with Adriana and I, and we choose to snooze, rather than coming along to balloon again. I turned out to be a good call since the flight was canceled due to rain. So we woke up rested, and just in time to eat again. Food and wine were a broad, but very pleasing, backdrop to all we did on this trip.
Michael got Dad a phone connection, so he was happy. For some strange reason, both this hotel and Le Parc Hotel in Paris had reversed two of their wires in the phone system. I think the French do this to specifically frustrate Americans.
We drove out to Chateau de Laborde or "Buddy's Place", about 30 minutes outside of Beaune. The company's operations are all based here. Dinner was in the L'Orangerie, a real orangerie, with timbers dating to the 15th century or so. The French used to keep orange trees outside during warmer weather, and move the trees into the orangerie before the first freeze. Inside was a Candle lit feast, prepared, as was last night's meal, by Chris, a chef extraordinaire, who cooks and presents beautifully the pique-nique's served throughout this trip. Chris' soups are fantastic and were a perfect warm me up as we came in out of the rain and were, of course, accompanied by a glass of wine.
The wind and rain continue to frustrate our flying attempts, so we are off to the Wine Cellers of Patriarche to do a little tasting. Nothing like the hair of the dog to lift your spirits. Patriarche Père et Fils has operated since 1780 but the labyrinthine cellars were built from the 13th to the 17th century and were operated by the nuns of several orders and convents. Today, they house nine million bottles and one can see, stacked and labeled, the great vineyards and great vintages of the world. As we toured the cellars Buddy conducted a wine tasting/lecture. We learned to use a testavin, the shallow metal cup that sommaliers wear around there necks at pretentious French restaurants in the States, and which is used to gauge the color and clarity of the wine. Buddy gave us an excellent tutorial on what makes a wine great or good or awful, how to tell from the label, what class a wine is, what conditions give rise to a great wine, and what to look for when you taste white wines vs red wines. Since we tasted so much wine during the course of this trip, Buddy's tutorial was invaluable to really appreciate what we were drinking.
To continue the theme, we next set off for the Clos de Vougeot, home of the Confrerie des Chelvalier du Testevins, a prestigious organizations of wine tasters which chooses the best wine of the year at a very lavish annual banquet which is attended by the famous and well connected. There we watched a multimedia presentation of this event, which was indeed impressive, though crippled by the fact that only one of three projectors functioned. Afterwards we were shown truly impressive giant 16th century wooden grape presses which towered two stories above us. I was looking around for some giant grapes, but I think they were hidden from us.
We had a date for lunch with the Contess de Loisy. First we took a short tour of the Cotes de Nuits, guided by the Countess who graciously explained the workings and history of her family wine cellars. We actually could spend very little time in the cellars, since the harvest was so recent, fermentation was in full swing, and the carbon dioxide levels were high enough to be dangerous. All of us felt out of breath after the tour, and it was a relief to get into the open air. Lunch was in the Contess' home which opens from the street into a lovely conservatory, through which roamed a turtle which had been in the family for almost one hundred years. We ate in the Library and, along with the wine and the food, we were entertained by the marvelous storytelling of the Contess. I think all of us will remember the graciousness, hospitality and humor this afternoon with fondness.
The weather was still thwarting our ballooning efforts, so we decided to tour a wine barrel factory. Barrel making is quite a lucrative business we found out. A good wine barrel will set you back about 800 bucks. The barrel making process is actually quite labor intensive and involves selecting and cutting the oak planks, heating them with a flame to bend them into shape, and then sealing and securing them with barrel hoops. This is done with a combination of machinery and sweaty Frenchmen, and involves a lot of noise.
After the barrel factory we a bit parched so we stopped in a little bistro in Nolay, a town on the way back to the hotel. I had another Calvados and convinced Cindy to do the same. I considered that quite game after her recent hangover. My video camera is a source of endless entertainment and I used its snapshot mode to take stills of us with unflattering facial expressions. I know everyone was wondering if I'll really include these shots in my final edited video. They better be nice to me.
Dinner was at the Chateau de Jet Fighters again, and Chris did another wonderful meal. I had asked Chris at the first dinner if he could stop at a charcuterie to look for some nice salamis and sausages and, true to his word, there was a wonderful pepper coated salami waiting for me to eat with a wickedly hot Dijon mustard. Oh, I love Europe! Why can't Americans have the same passion for food? After our meal we went upstairs to see the motorcycle collection of the chateau owner. Of course, someone who collects jet fighters would have to go to great lengths to impress further. And impress he did. Row upon row, literally hundreds, of motorcycles lined the corridors of the chateau's upper level. I am a little disappointed that we did not meet the owner. I am sure he would be at least as interesting as his chateau.
Pickwicks was next, but Adriana and I decided to go back to the hotel. Another great day, but we all hoped that we'd fly tommorrow.
Even with an early night, Adriana and I were up five minutes before our 10:00 AM departure. Still not flying weather, so we drove downtown to visit the Hospice de Beaune, a paupers hospital built in the 15th century and famous for its annual sale of wine. The auction, which has long financed the works of the Hospice and now those of a modern equivalent, is a major social event in Beaune and in France. The story of the founding of the Hospice de Beaune is quite interesting. A Duke of Burgundy built the hospital, which was run by an order of nuns who took every vow except that of poverty. The nuns were allowed to bring their handmaids with them and were something like a medieval Junior League. The Duke was extremely devoted to his wife, which he proclaimed publicly by having an emblem bearing the word "Seulle" placed throughout the Hospice. Seulle means "only," as in "only you," and I bought Adriana a cup and saucer bearing this emblem in the Hospice shop. I'm so romantic!!!!
The building is quite beautifully appointed, with rich wooden sick beds and a beautiful roof tiled in a colorful geometric Flemish design. The Dukes of Burgundy, during this time, held hegemony over the low countries, and so the Flemish roof designs may be seen on other buildings of this period. However, the reality of living and working in this Hospice was a little more Spartan than appearances today. There was no heat and the indigent patients were placed two to a bed, as the shared body heat prevented them from freezing to death. Drawings of the Hospice during its heyday show that the large areas around the beds were packed with the families of the patients who camped out during the duration of the patients stay. This was probably not a peaceful place to recuperate. However, it was state of the art for the time, and beat slowly dying in a miserable hut.
The highlight of the artwork in the Hospice was a polytich which showed a depiction of the Judgement Day. The souls moving into the left panels were those going to hell, which looked very nasty and painful, and those going right were those going to heaven. The detail of this painting was incredible and was exposed by a unique magnifying glass which traveled smoothly over the horizontal and vertical rails to the area of interest. The Louvre is very covetous of obtaining this work of art, and rightly so.
Lunch today was at the Hostellerie de Levernois. The hotel is set on beautifully manicured grounds which we walked after our many course meal. Two of the courses were especially memorable. A mushroom and escargot en croute came in a pastry that looked like a fully risen soufflé and was filled with what can only be described with moans of pleasure and experienced in person. The second unforgettable course was heralded by three carts arriving at our table, full of cheeses. There were more cheeses than I thought safe in such close proximity, literally hundreds. All of those hues of mold and pungent smells must surely reach a critical mass and cause a fromage meltdown or explosion. It was wonderful. Adriana, though, cannot understand how I can put something that, to her description in Portuguese, smells vaguely scatological, in my mouth. To each their own.
Crossing our fingers, we left lunch to try to fly. The report was good. On the way we had a gut wrenching helium balloon singing session. Cindy took the prize with "Up, up, and away with my beautiful balloon." And up, up, and away we were. Luck was with us, and we launched the balloon from a hilltop with a pretty roman arch bridge striding the valley below us. Again, I am astonished by the red, yellow and gold Autumn hues of the Côte d'Or. It is silly, but I did not expect this beauty. The highlight of this flight was an incredible sunset which lit up with a glow, and cast long shadows of the poplar trees and vineyards against, the undulating hills and valleys of the Burgundian countryside.
For a change of pace we went out for dinner to the "Piqu'beouf," or the "Pig and Beef" as it is affectionately known. The steaks were scrumptious but the most interesting menu item was the Pizza Borgogne which is topped with escargot and mushrooms. After dinner was another Pickwicks night. We wondered if we would bump into Catherine again, but she was not there. Adriana and I played pub darts as a team against Cindy and Grant. We were pathetic. I think we need to buy a dart board to practice at home before we publicly humiliate ourselves again. But, the beer was good and our embarrassment was soon forgotten.
We thought we were on a roll with the weather, so this morning we rushed to get everyone out to try for a flight. This was our last morning in Burgundy. We were transferring to the Loire Valley that afternoon. It wasn't until we stopped to let off a test balloon that we realized that we'd left Michael, our pilot behind. Oops! All was for naught anyway. As soon as Michael arrived, and we started inflating the balloon it started raining. Catherine, our B&R friend, also came along, in hopes of going up in Dad's balloon. After our aborted mission, we drove her back to the B&R office, where she gave us a tour. I loved seeing the place where the wonderful bicycle tours we took were planned and coordinated. Note to myself: I need to take Adriana on a B&R trip.
We decided on mussels for lunch. We had seen a restaurant, appropriately called "Moules et Frites," as we had driven through Beaune during the week, and were anxious to give it a try. Mussels could be prepared more than a dozen ways and we each tried a different broth. The mussels were good, but not as good as those we had in Paris. Or perhaps, our palates had now been spoiled by a week of delightful eating.
Our week in Burgundy, though plagued by bad flying weather, exceeded all of our expectations. We left now, to drive to the Loire Valley. Just leaving Beaune, we saw a 180 degree rainbow. Good portents for the rest of our journey.
Our first day driving we headed for the area of Vezelay, a medieval staging point for the second crusade and obligatory stop on the pilgrimage to Compestella. Dad, Cindy and Adriana took naps along the way. To kill time, I played a game. Denise, the youngest of our tripmates, has an enormous reservoir of speech in general, and slang in particular. I thought it would be fun to write down all of the colloquialisms that Denise used during our short trip to Vézelay. They are amusing. Denise-isms.
We arrived at our Hotel, "Vault de Lugny," as it became dark, driving through the gate, across a moat, and into a large courtyard, surrounded by buildings, the dungeons of which date back to the 14th century. We were greeted by two big hounds, and Elizabeth, the proprietress, who was helpful and attentive throughout our visit. The rooms in this chateau are huge, with four poster beds, and the look of royalty. Dad stayed in "Le Roi" or The Kings Room, which sported a fur skin rug in front of his fireplace. We ended the day with dinner in the Hotel, which was delicious. Adriana had a filet of turbot which as light a heaven. We finished the night chatting with Cindy and Dad in front of Dad's fireplace.
One shock was that Vault de Lugny is on the WEB. http://www.lugny.com/
Refreshed, but still a little fuzzy, after sleeping in our big canopied bed, I was startled by a balloon drifting in the courtyard past our bathroom window. Oblivious to my nudity, I opened the window for a better look. It must be the Aussie couple we met last night at dinner, I thought. They had said that they would be flying this morning. This was confirmed when they mentioned a "naked man" sighting , later that day.
Adriana and I had an early breakfast and wandered through the courtyard and the surrounding buildings. When we had arrived the night before, the animals had been already put to bed, in the barn across the courtyard, so we were surprised to see chickens, geese, peacocks and a mule roaming the manicured grounds, along with the dogs and cats. The geese were, as geese are, aggressive and nasty. It was amusing to see a matron of the hotel beat them off with her purse, with wide swinging arcs and French expletives, as she made her way through the entrance gates. At one corner of the courtyard was a turret which we ascended through a round, stone staircase, replete with narrow slits for defending the castle with bow and arrow. Our little black cat followed us up. He had slept in our room last night and he looked as if he moused frequently in this old tower. Early morning shafts of light lit the stone chambers of the tower, creating a thoroughly theatrical effect, and the pastural scene from the top was, ... well, pastural!
As I said, the Aussies flew by in their balloon early in the morning, but by the time we were all ready to go out, the wind had picked up, and we were out of luck again. However, the day was beautiful, sunny and blue, and we drove off to the medieval town of Vézelay, which lies on a hilltop about ten minutes from Vault de Lugny.
Our first stop in Vézelay was the Basilica of Mary Magdalene, a Gothic and Romanesque structure with a long history. Vézelay was a staging point for the Second Crusade. Saint Bernard preached to a crowd of 40,000 knights and believers here, in kind of a crusader pep rally in the 12th century. This was also stopover point for pilgrims on their way to the shrine of Compestella. One of the reasons that this basilica rose to prominence was its possession of a grisly "relique," the alleged leg bone of Mary Magdalene. Relics are always a big draw, and if one put together all of the bone fragments allegedly belonging to the blessed Mary, thoughout the world, her skeleton would likely look quite grotesque, with multiple arms, legs, heads and various animal appendages. As Buddy was explaining a bit of this history, an ethereal chorus rose from an assemblage of modern day pilgrims at the front of the church. It turned out that they were a choral group that travels every year to holy sites to sing. Though I am not religious, the experience was indeed divine. The group continued their hymns outdoors, with a hilltop view of the Vézelay countryside as a backdrop.
When the choral group broke up, we walked down the main street of Vézelay, which has delightful, if pricey, shops. We had an hour to kill before going to our pique-nique lunch, which Dad and I happily passed in a café sipping beer.
Our picnic lunch was set next to a stone bridge which crossed a small river, with a rock face off to one side. Another excellent meal. After lunch, we fruitlessly waited for the wind to die down so we could balloon. Cindy, Adriana and I took a walk along the river bank and then Adriana and I took a nap in the Previa. We were amazed to wake up to find that two hours had passed. As we had slept I heard a lot of laughter, and, leaving, I saw a lot of empty wine bottles. I was glad that we sat that one out. It's going to take a long time to dry out after this trip.
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped in yet another bar, this one located in the crew's hotel. Cindy and I drank some Calvados and a beer. I also introduced the group to Cider and Beer. A fifty percent mixture of beer takes a bit of the sweetness out of the cider, and all approved of the concoction.
We had dinner back at Vault de Lugny, were Buddy ordered a white wine which had "great legs." I thought he was a bit nutty until he explained that as a wine ages, the surface tension and viscosity changes, and when one swirls the wine glass, some of it the wine will adhere to the glasses surface and drip down the sides in what look like "legs." Through the rest of the trip, I assiduously checked my wine for the quality of its legs.
Adriana, Cindy and I sat around and talked after dinner in front of Dad's fireplace again and then had an early sleep.
Reluctantly we left Vault de Lugny. However, we were headed for Domaine de Beauvois, one of my favorite hotels. Domaine de Beauvois is also used by B&R because of the beauty of its forest surrounded grounds, the gorgeous rooms, and the wonderful hotel restaurant. Dad, Cindy and I had all been there years before, almost not making the last 5K bicycle ride to the hotel after becoming members of the Century Club. We became members of this exclusive club by drinking, along with seven others, a hundred beers, at the Café de Sport, a little bar that we just couldn't pass by on the way to the hotel. Unfortunately I did not make a pilgrimage to the Café de Sport this trip, but Cindy and Dad returned to the scene of the crime, and Denise was introduced to its cheerful ambiance.
The drive from Vault de Lugny to the Loire Valley was long, about five hours, but we stopped and had the best duck of our trip for lunch. The weather was clearing up towards the end of our trip, so we stopped in Chinon, in a little park next to a bridge and across the river from a large castle, for an early evening flight. Normally the crew takes about twenty minutes to neatly unwrap and spread out the balloon before inflation. Today, since we were running late, the crew did a quickie, pulling the balloon out of the bag and starting the blowers even as the bag was being taken off the crown of the balloon. We were the attraction that afternoon and by the time we were inflated and ready to launch there must have been a couple of hundred onlookers. Everyone was extremely friendly. I wonder if we were in a McDonalds balloon that they would be quite as friendly. Traveling through the wine country in a corkscrew balloon has its advantages.
We took off to the waves and curious stares of many people and floated off over the bridge and down the Loire. Some years before, Joan of Arc came to Chinon and approached the King, at the Castle here, with her visions. Passing through Chinon, we passed over a statue of Joan which commemorates this event, and almost caused injury as hundreds of children bent of their carousel and other carnival rides to wave to us as we passed over the town fair. Our flight path took us out over the Loire river for a while and we first saw the "Troglodyte" homes that the area is known for. All throughout this region, there are homes dug out of the soft limestone of the steep riverbanks. Some are very simple and look like caves, while others have elaborate facades, and are indistinguishable from the front of a regular house. The vineyards here had not changed color as much as those in Burgundy, and many were still green. This was really strange, since the two regions are at the same latitude. While searching for a suitable landing field, we attracted an entourage of cars and bicycles who followed until we landed. We shared champagne and good will, and gave Coke to the kids.
After the flight we ate dinner back at Domaine de Beauvois. Strawberries Flambé was on the menu, and I asked if they could make a Banana Flambé. Adriana and I both love this desert, which we first had together on our honeymoon in Aguas Bellas, Brazil. Yes, the chef could make it, and he came out, delicately filleted the bananas, and flambéd them with rum, sugar and cinnamon. We were very happy. The rest of the meal was excellent too, though the bananas have interfered with my ability to recall what we ate. Cindy, Adriana and I walked off dinner, strolling around the grounds, down to the pool, and then retreated back up to the hotel when we were shivering too much.
One of the things I love about European breakfast is that cheese and coldcuts are often served in addition to fresh breads and rolls. Domaine de Beauvois had nice litte plates of proscuitto to wrap in soft, flaky pieces of croissant. Another two or three pounds to add to my total gain!
It was a foggy morning, but expected to clear. To kill some time we drove into Chinon. On the river we saw a small fleet of old masted boats and a festival going on. It looked interesting, so we wondered over to join the fun. This was a moving celebration. The old boats were replicas of trading vessels which plied the Loire in the 17th century, and they were going from town to town along the river to celebrate the 1600th anniversary of the death of St. Martin. A lot of the people were dressed in period pieces, with a lot of tricords and sackcloth going around. One of the participants, a rather ripe looking Frenchman, was concerned for my welfare and introduced me to "Vin Chaud", or literally "Warm Wine." It was a chilly morning and this warm, slightly spiced wine was delicious. Apparently everyone else though so too since there was a brisk trade in the stuff. The riverboat pilots looked positively jolly, and I wondered how their navigational skills would be by mid afternoon. The fleet took off in a show of warm camaraderie and song, and we left to make our flight.
Our flight was to take off from a field in front of Chateau d'Ussey, literally a fairy tale castle. The story of Sleeping Beauty was written while the author stayed there. Along the low wall bordering the field was a thick tangle of brambles, looking just like ... guess what? This must have been the very inspiration for the impenetrable wall of thorns that the author described enveloping the castle as Sleeping Beauty slumbered. The fog had not completely burned off and we flew through misty valleys and floated through low clouds, with Enya playing in the background adding to the mystical feeling. We ascended to over five thousand feet and into the higher clouds and sunshine. As the fog burned off we descended again and moved out over a long stretch of forest. We hadn't planned on this wind direction, but it was a beautiful flight. We saw stags bounding across the clearings and wild boar breaking through the underbrush. A balloon would be a great hunting platform, because the noise of the burners flushes out the game and you have a great vantage point to shoot from. However, I don't think I could kill one of these majestic creatures. Just seeing them is enough. Our flight continued for three and a half hours and was the longest flight we have ever taken.
Because of the length of our flight we missed lunch at the hotel. We stopped instead, at a charcuterie/restaurant along the way back. I am running out of adjectives to describe the consistently wonderful food we've had on this trip. It seems impossible to get a bad meal in France, and I think the French must lace the drinking water with some kind of flavor enhancer. Or maybe it is just the quantity of wine that one drinks in France that colors ones perception in rose tones. Adriana had a Chicken Fricassee that was out of this world. I bought some little dried sausages and a saucisson sec at the charcutarie next door that kept me in rapture for then next two days as I snacked on them. I let my belt out another notch! Back to the hotel for a quick nap.
I needed a breather so Adriana and I decided to stay at the Hotel while the Dad, Cindy, Denise and the rest of the group went off to dinner. Adriana wanted to get bananas flambé again, but unfortunately the kitchen had closed early. We watched CNN International (One of the benefits of international travel) and had an quiet night.
Today we finally got to tour one of the big chateaux. We were off to Chenonceau. Dad had already been there several times so we dropped him off to walk in the town where we were to have lunch. I had also been to Chenonceau, but, at the time, it had been hot and crowded. Now was the ideal time to visit. There were no lines, the weather was comfortable, cool and sunny, and the French were nicer too. Also, this time we had a private tour with Buddy. Buddy took us through the side entrance which most visitors do not even notice. The gardens, though not in bloom, were beautiful in the autumn sun. Buddy gave us a walking commentary and history of the castle. He pointed out the traditional orange trees planted in large white planters which still line the walkways, and are moved into L'Orangerie in wintertime. The most poignant story he told was of one of the occupants of Chenonceau who, upon the death of her husband, lived that remaining 12 years of her life in a top floor room painted black. The walls of the room are decorated with symbols of death and pain. I wonder if Adriana would do that for me?
We met Dad for lunch at a beautiful restaurant with picture windows looking out on the Loire river. The waiter was very nice, but spoke English with a heavy French accent. Compounding that, he also had a very pronounced lisp, and he had to repeat the menu selections several times for us to understand. If I wasn't concentrating so hard on what dish he was describing, I would have burst out laughing. After lunch, the Buddy arranged for us to see a large troglodyte cave located behind the restaurant. Its scale was massive. There were two large gallery rooms, several stories high. Towards the rear of one of the galleries, a cave led back into several smaller caverns with high parabolic ceilings. The ceilings had a unique quality of greatly amplifying your voice. Currently the caverns were being used to display artwork.
We flew again this afternoon, taking off from a soccer field. The highlight of this flight were the way that the late afternoon sun lit up the Loire and a beautiful sunset.
That night dinner was in the tower ruins of Cinq-Mars castle. Adriana and I had skipped dinner here last night, but we were in for a treat tonight. Chris again put on an excellent pique-nique feast. Cinq-Mars was built in the 11th century and only its towers remain. We ate in front of a roaring fire in the vaulted room at the base of one of the towers. Cindy brought us up to the top of the tower after dinner. It was very cold, but the view was breathtaking. The crumbling ramparts framed an exquisitely starry sky, and we stayed and talked for a while up here. Cindy left us to be romantic and we kissed under the stars and went back down only when we got too cold.
This morning we took off from the lawn of Domaine de Beauvois. As we took off there was a wonderful shadow of the balloon which moved across the hotel and into the forest. It was just a beautiful morning, sunny and just a little crisp, warming up as the sun rose higher. We moved out of the forest quickly and out over farmland punctuated with small lakes and river tributaries. It was a great flight for balloon reflection shots and I got some excellent video as we passed over water. Out of the tranquillity of the morning came an experience which left us all hooting and hollering with excitement. Someone pointed out small aircraft in the distance, and within seconds two Mirage fighters were three hundred meters away. They wagged there wings, flew a curve around the balloon, and were again distant dots, all in an instant. I'm glad they were friendlies.
That afternoon we went to see the famous ornamental gardens at Villandry. The gardens were wearing their Autumn dress, and the vegetable gardens were the highlight this time of year. Cabbage, cauliflower and a multitude of combined geometerically to create works of art, with flawless leaves and form. The gardens span several levels and are immense. Only eight gardeners tend Villandry. I can only think that they are very busy fellows.
By this time it was late afternoon and we took off for what would be our last flight this trip. Chris joined us, sporting his chef's attire, to serve us an in-flight meal. This was the first in-flight pique-nique for Adriana and I and it was a delightful experience. Out of a large box, Chris set up a "candlelight" dinner, with wine, served on china with silverware, and lit, not by candles but, by the flames of the balloon burner. It was wonderful to sip wine and eat while flying over the countryside. We had a huge entourage of onlookers following us when we landed and the chase vehicles had to compete with the local's cars to get to our landing site. Usually, I love to interact the people who come out to meet us but, towards the end of the flight I developed a terrible earache, and now I had to go sit in the Previa. I have never had an earache before and didn't realize that they hurt so much. Unfortunately, it was Sunday and there were no pharmacies open so I had to wait until the morning for relief. The French countryside offers much that is wonderful, but I longed for a 24 hour Eckerds.
Today was our last day in the Loire. I woke up early today and my ear was a little better, but Buddy took us to the pharmacy for some ear drops. I didn't want a recurrence on the flight home. Ear drops, an ear syringe and some pain killers cost a whopping $11.00. There are some advantages to socialized medicine.
We packed our bags and had a last lunch at the hotel. Buddy and the crew accompanied us to the train station where we said goodbye. Michael and Jamie came with us to Paris. Again we rode the TGV, this time a newer model. I played the video I had shot for everyone as entertainment and before we knew it, we were in Paris. It had been a great trip.
We spent our last night in Paris getting in a café near the hotel. The wine list was a bit of a disappointment after the wonderful bottles we had been used to, but we made up in quantity what we lost in quality. We all got a bit toasty (except for Adriana who was our designated walker). We ended up drinking and talking in the lobby lounge of our hotel and had an early night since our flight out was scheduled for the next morning. Cindy and Dad, thought, decided to stay a few extra days and take the train to London through the Chunnel. I was a bit envious at the thought of spending a few days checking out the London pubs but I had to get back to reality and, ughh, work. (The subsequent job search went well and I will start back at Microsoft on December 2).
We met Cindy for breakfast early in the morning and Adriana and I took a taxi to the airport. We were sad to be parting, but know we will see Cindy again soon. She is a good friend and Adriana got to know her on this trip and really likes her too. Hopefully she will come up and visit us in Carolina. The morning Paris traffic was horrendous, but we arrived 45 minutes early and cleared customs just as boarding began. We were happy to be returning to see Woody and our new home.
Thank you Dad, for a wonderful trip!